Mark Jungers discusses Chicago and lateral movement with the Wall Street Journal

Mass Partner Exodus Hits Chicago Firm Schiff Hardin

There’s a big shake-up underway at Schiff Hardin LLP, a Chicago-based law firm with 400 attorneys.

A group of 22 partners, led by longtime firm leaders Robert Riley and Ronald Safer, are leaving to launch their own firm, the two said Friday.

Until last February, Mr. Riley, a products-liability litigator, served as Schiff Hardin’s chairman, and Mr. Safer, a white-collar lawyer and former federal prosecutor, served as managing partner. Both had been in the roles for around a decade and have worked at the firm for virtually their entire careers.

While partners leave big firms fairly frequently to start boutiques, it’s not often that we see lawyers so deeply embedded in firm leadership make a break like this.

“It’s bittersweet,” Mr. Safer said Friday, though the pair declined to say more on what prompted the move while they were still employed by Schiff Hardin. The new firm, to be called Riley, Safer, Holmes & Cancila, will have offices in Chicago, New York and San Francisco.

Those departing include Patricia Brown Holmes, a former state court judge and federal prosecutor who’s currently president of the Chicago Bar Association, class action lawyer Joseph Cancila, and leaders from Schiff Hardin’s intellectual property, product liability and general litigation groups.

In a statement, Schiff Hardin’s managing partner Marci Eisenstein said the losses don’t alter the strategy of the firm “as a large concentration of those departing focus on asbestos litigation.” She said the firm wishes them luck in their next steps.

Mr. Safer took issue with that characterization, saying asbestos work will be less than 30% of the new firm, which will also handle commercial, white-collar, intellectual property and class action litigation. Some transactional work will be in the mix, too, he said.

Chicago-area legal recruiter Mark Jungers said the departures are bound to be disruptive to the firm. “This is jarring,” Mr. Jungers said, adding that Schiff Hardin has resisted the urge-to-merge mentality that’s struck many of its competitors in recent years. “It was never a firm pursuing global dominance.”

Kristina Anderson, another Chicago legal recruiter, said she doesn’t think the losses will be too big a blow to Schiff Hardin. The firm can continue to resist a merger and “survive just fine,” she said, “or they can eventually accept one of the many large-firm suitors that remain.”

In 2014, the firm brought in $241 million in revenue, according to legal trade publication the American Lawyer. The firm won’t say yet how it did in 2015 aside from calling it a “record” year.

In addition to its Chicago hub, Schiff Hardin has eight other offices in the U.S., including in New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Ann Arbor, Mich.